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I feel so bad for Jane right now. She’s been through a lot of awful stuff on this series, but there’s something especially painful about her current situation, a dejected emotional state that can only be reached by surviving years of telenovela twists only to have new ones continue to derail any progress. The accidental artificial insemination. The love triangle. The evil crime lord faking Michael’s death and wiping his memory. They all play an essential role in the drama of “Chapter Eighty-Six,” with writers Joni Lefkowitz and Madeline Hendricks using the show’s history to craft complex emotional conflicts for the entire cast. I was concerned about the reemergence of the Jane/Rafael/Michael love triangle taking the show backward when it’s done such good work growing after Michael’s death, but the character dynamics are drastically different now, giving the triangle new emotional terrain to explore.

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Mateo is the biggest change. A kid grows a lot from 2 to 6, and Mateo has more agency and can voice his feelings in a way he couldn’t when he first knew Michael. Mateo wants his mother and his father to be together, and he views Michael as a threat to their family. Mateo sides with his father in this fight, taking Rafael’s anger and resentment and amplifying it with his lack of empathy. Mateo’s a kid who doesn’t understand how much words can hurt other people, so he can say things Rafael might be thinking, but would never utter. It’s a milestone moment when Mateo tells his mother that he hates her and blames her for everything, destroying her spirit on the eve of her 30th birthday.

Three weeks ago, Jane was preparing for an epic 30th birthday blowout complete with a live unicorn (a baby donkey with a horn). She was settled and happy with her family, and then Rose ruined everything by bringing Jason into her life. Now Jane is shunned by Rafael and Mateo, unable to write, and afraid of reconnecting with Michael because there are all kinds of tangled strings attached there. An early scene accentuates Jane’s dizzying headspace when Michael shows up at her house just before Rafael and Mateo, creating a lot of anxiety as Jane futilely tries to stop Mateo and Rafael from going into Mateo’s room, where Jane hid Michael away in a panic. It’s hard to think of a worse-case scenario, and this episode really piles it on Jane.

Michael is much better about boundaries than Jason, but he still needs to spend time with Jane because his life insurance company thinks he committed fraud and wants its $40,000 back. Jane and Michael have to work together to prove their innocence, but being alone is a dangerous thing for them. Even when they’re not trying, they are rebuilding their intimacy with every moment they share. The quiet moments are the worst, the small glances and stifled breaths that tell us so much about what these characters are feeling. We can see it, but Jane can’t yet. It’s only by writing that she opens her eyes, clarifying her feelings for Michael by writing notes that are supposed to be objective and detached but cannot hide her true emotions.

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The subplot with Petra and JR similarly delves into the past, with JR continuing to doubt the safety and stability of a relationship with Petra after what’s happened between them. JR was a successful lawyer who lost her license to practice because she got caught in Petra’s web of lies. She’s trying to give Petra a second chance, but whenever she goes into her new bartending job, she’s reminded of the life she gave up for this woman who is followed by trouble at every turn. Milos becomes a problem yet again, but this thread has a great payoff in a scene where Petra joins Alba and Xo on a classic Villanueva rescue mission to pull Jane out of a low point.

Jane never shows up to her unicorn party, fleeing the scene when she pulls up in front of the house and sees all the people gathered to celebrate her. Alba and Xo run after her, and Petra tags along because she needs Jane to corroborate an alibi, proving that Petra didn’t draft an e-mail telling Milos she would drop charges against him in exchange for his hotel shares. Petra’s selfish motivation adds a lot of humor to the scene as she offers advice until she gets what she needs, quickly fleeing the scene before she ends up in the weeds with Jane’s drama.

Sitting in a ditch with her mom and abuela, Jane looks at her crumpled notes and is forced to come to terms with a truth she’s been avoiding. Xo points out that these notes aren’t emotionally detached at all, and if Jane still has these feelings for Michael, she can’t bury them away by trying to win back Rafael. She needs to work through these feelings or they’ll continue to poison her relationships with both Rafael with Michael. It’s a hard thing for her to realize and it’s a hard thing for Rafael to hear, especially when he’s about to apologize and give her a birthday card proclaiming his love.

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This series functions on three levels of heightened reality. Rogelio’s telenovelas are the most exaggerated reality, followed by the soapy intrigue of The Marbella, and then the fairly grounded drama of the Villanueva house. Rafael is a character rooted in The Marbella, and it makes sense for him to have an explosive reaction to this situation because deep down he’s still the bad boy competition to Michael’s good cop boyfriend. Intensity is at the core of Rafael. It’s a strength when it comes to being an affectionate partner, but a weakness when mixed with jealousy and anger.

This episode gives us the latter, and his harsh treatment of Jane influences how Mateo treats his mother, spreading the negativity and increasing Jane’s frustration and sadness. Justin Baldoni has always been great at capturing that intensity. His smoldering confidence and impassioned line delivery make it very easy to swoon over him, but he’s also internalized the betrayals and disappointments of Rafael’s life to give the character a fundamentally wounded quality. Rafael has been hurt over and over again, and he reverts back to self-destructive habits as he faces the possibility of having his heart broken by Jane again. The episode’s cliffhanger shows Rafael washing down a pill with a glass of dark liquor, accelerating his backslide to further jeopardize his relationship with Jane.

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If Rafael enters a new dark period, that’s going to be bad news for Mateo, who sees his father as an example of how to behave. Mateo is vicious this week, running from his mother when they are out in public and then telling people that she’s a stranger when she tries to discipline him. Mateo refuses to relent when Jane reacts with anger, but when she shifts to sadness, Mateo finally sees the pain he’s causing.

When I was in the fifth grade, I was really into Arthurian lore and desperately wanted to watch NBC’s Merlin miniseries starring Sam Neill, Helena Bonham Carter, and Miranda Richardson. The problem was that my parents were very strict with their “no TV on school nights” rule, so I was going to miss the part airing on Monday after I had watched earlier parts over the weekend. I was furious, grabbed my diary and wrote about how I hated my mom for denying me this essential need. My mom did not care about my privacy, read the diary, and then took me on a massive guilt trip that ended with her crying in the bathroom.

The moment of resolution between Jane and Mateo rings very true. Once Jane puts down her wall of parental invulnerability and lets her son see the profound hurt she’s feeling, he drops the attitude to give her the affection she clearly needs. It’s weird seeing parents cry but it really hurts when they cry because of something you did, and you never really look at your parents the same way once you see them drop their guard. This is a major moment in Mateo’s empathetic development, recognizing that his actions have negative consequences for other people that will make him feel bad in return. Jane’s Catholic son is learning all about guilt, and mom’s playing an active role in his education.

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Stray observations

  • The show doesn’t wallow in Jane’s misery too long at the top, throwing in a comedic moment of embarrassment early on when Jane accidentally walks into Jorge’s room and sees him naked.
  • Transition brilliance: Xo saying “Mmm...incredible” after Jane aggressively bites into an apple to end the Jorge penis conversation.
  • The Jane The Virgin title card appears multiple times in this episode to get expanded on as Jane’s situation worsens. It emphasizes how this series has always been about adding dimension to the overly reductive label of the show’s title.
  • Rogelio is dealing with his own triangle conflict as Darci and Esteban return this week and step into his walking disaster zone. Rogelio’s jealous of how calm and affectionate Baby is with Esteban, so he makes a few calls to get Esteban a new acting job in Mexico. High jinks ensue. I love the Darci/Esteban/Rogelio dynamic, and the show finds clever ways to explore the rivalries between all three characters in different contexts as they learn how to co-parent.
  • After discovering the challenges of post-chemotherapy recovery last week, Xo is cautious to start celebrating the end of this process until she gets her final test results back. Rogelio decides that they can still celebrate how far she’s come even if it’s not the big victory, and it’s a small but sweet part of this episode that spotlights how well the series has handled the Xo cancer storyline. It doesn’t shy away from the scary aspects of diagnosis and treatment, but ultimately it strengthens Xo’s fighting spirit by testing its resilience.
  • New Darci Factor Rules! #13: When it ends, don’t be friends. #83: Use the fight to shine a light. #355: Want to keep your mate? Then take every chance to celebrate.
  • “Brush those teeth, your breath is like a turtle tank.” As a former turtle owner, I know the exact smell she is talking about and wow that is an evocative comparison.
  • Marlene: “Write in a dispassionate narrative voice.” Narrator: “Hey! Narrators are not dispassionate! We have a clear point of view.” Marlene: “Detached. Objective.” Narrator: “Would you rather have Siri narrate this?”
  • Petra: “I care about Jane too!” Narrator: “And she needs her to corroborate an alibi.”
  • “Someone get that little donkey with a horn out of my house. I don’t care how magical it may be I am not dealing with unicorn poop.”

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